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Penikese Island
Penikese Island from the southeast in 2005.
Archipelago Elizabeth Islands
Total islands 1
Area .117 sq mi (0.30 km2)
Highest elevation 52 ft (15.8 m)
United States
State Massachusetts
County Dukes County
The Elizabeth Islands
Major Islands listed in order from east to west
Nonamesset Uncatena Naushon Pasque Nashawena Penikese Cuttyhunk
Minor Islands:
Bachelor Baret Bull Cedar Gosnold Gull Rock Veckatimest Weepecket Islands
Penikese Island 2015
Penikese Island from the north in 2015

Penikese Island is a 75-acre (0.117 sq mi) island off the coast of Massachusetts, United States, in Buzzards Bay. It is one of the Elizabeth Islands, which make up the town of Gosnold, Massachusetts. Penikese is located near the west end of the Elizabeth island chain.


Penikese Island entered the historical record in 1602 AD when the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold and some of his crew visited the island. Their visit frightened four visiting Wampanoag Indians into hiding, and the explorers stole their canoe.

Originally tree covered, at some later time the tree cover was lost, and the island was later used for pasturing sheep. To this day, it remains primarily grass covered. Ownership changed hands several time before the island was purchased by John Anderson, a businessman, who used it for vacationing.

In early 1873, Louis Agassiz, the famous Swiss-American naturalist, persuaded Anderson to give him the island and $50,000 to endow a school for natural history where students would study nature instead of books. The school opened in July 1873, initially headed by Louis Agassiz. Following his death in December, his son Alexander Agassiz ran the school. The school was closed following a fire in 1875, but some of the former students opened in 1888 the Marine Biological Laboratory, in nearby Woods Hole.

In 1904, following local opposition to two previously selected sites on the mainland, the state of Massachusetts purchased the island for $25,000 to use as a leprosy hospital to isolate and treat all Massachusetts residents with the disease. The residents with the disease were called "lepers", because they had leprosy. When opened, the Penikese Island Leper Hospital had five patients. After being open for 16 years, it was closed in 1921 and the thirteen patients were transferred to the federal leprosy hospital in Carville, Louisiana. At the closing of the hospital, the state burnt and then dynamited the buildings, and all that remains of it is are stone gate posts and a small cemetery.

The island remains under the ownership of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and is primarily a bird sanctuary. There is no permanent population on the island. A residential school for special-needs juvenile boys was opened in 1973, so at any time, there may be school staff and some students on the island. There may also be visitors and researchers on island from time to time, as the island is publicly owned and is still used at times for biological research. Beginning in 1990, the island was used as a test site for efforts to reintroduce the endangered American burying beetle, which appears to have succeeded; by 1997 the population had persisted for at least five generations since the last release.

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